Scenarios for Global Governance and the EU Open Strategic Autonomy: a Window of Opportunity for a ‘Spinellian Moment’

Mario Telò
Professor of International Relations at LUISS University of Rome and President Emeritus of the Institut d’Études Européennes of the Université libre de Bruxelles.

Introduction: is Open Strategic Autonomy a priority for the Conference?

Open Strategic Autonomy is an extremely relevant and ambitious concept relating to the EU’s future: it has to do with our liberty and welfare within the complex and dangerous world we currently inhabit. However, it is quite a vague notion: the task of making it more concrete should be a priority both for the EU institutions and for the Conference.  Research may contribute by deepening its conditions and consequences – notably, what is and is not feasible in the global context of the twenty-first century. While for 70 years European unity was mainly concerned with internal conflict prevention and stability (after two World Wars), the main issue at stake in the decades ahead will be the coherent link between the internal multilateralism and the capacity of shaping, as autonomous actor, the globalization and the world order.

The EU represents only 5 percent of the global population but is comparable with the United States and China in terms of GDP (15,4 percent in 2019) and trade power (15 percent), is still a monetary power (the euro is the world’s second reserve currency), remains a major actor when it comes to aid to developing countries and humanitarian aid, and is still the world’s number one in creating arrangements and agreements with international partners both near and far. How can it, through a deeper cooperation and integration process, not only survive, but also better influence the multipolar, non-European world and its governance according to its own interests and values? It must, first of all, proactively promote multilateral convergences for common goods: peace by conflict-prevention, public health, sustainable development, environment and fair regulation of the globalized economy and trade.  

If the EU misses this opportunity, a tragic backwards step is possible. We might find ourselves retreating from the constructive years between the 2001 Laeken Declaration, the European Convention and the Lisbon Treaty, when ambitious objectives were strictly linked to new institutional modes of governance.

Alternative scenarios:  analytical findings

Will the current global multipolar context allow new actors like the EU to emerge? Research suggests [i]1 that there are four alternative scenarios for the EU’s potential role.

a) An asymmetrical multipolarity characterized by the US military primacy

Since 1989-91, the global context has evolved towards an unprecedented multipolarity, both asymmetric and bifurcating, combined with a multilayered, multilateral network of cooperation, which is to some extent very fragile but in some ways resilient and dynamic.

Why asymmetric? Contrary to the eurocentric order of the nineteenth century, the new multipolarity is asymmetric in terms of geographic extension, demography, economic power, and the soft power of the main poles. The main asymmetry, though, is that related to military capacities and defence budgets. The United States remains by far the biggest superpower. The rhetoric about China strengthening its military competitiveness does not stand up to scrutiny, with data showing that China’s defence budget (US$ 209 billion in 2020) is still a quarter of that of the United States (even if it is increasing).

The consequence for European nuclear and non-nuclear security, notably in a context of global rearmament (SIPRI 2019), is that the EU still needs to combine its own open strategic autonomy with a new transatlantic deal - for the coming 20 years at least (and benefit of the NATO Art. 5 for its security). This does not mean “NATO first”, and reviving transatlantic cooperation will not be easy. What is new is that the global changes and the experiences of the last few decades have made European leaders (Merkel, Macron, Borrell) aware that the EU can no longer solely rely on the United States for its security. The United States’ declining role and the transatlantic rift over strategic interests and models for society are long-term achievements of scientific research, even if only extremists would neglect the relevance of shared values and the liberal model.  The Eurobarometer surveys have shown how EU citizens no longer rely on the United States, as they did previously, and they are worried about the growing relevance of American domestic politics, provoking oscillations of the US will (and capacity) to lead global cooperation.

This means that the EU cannot return to its obsolete role of a junior partner in the alliance. After Trump’s defeat, bringing the United States back in the multilateral game is in the EU’s interest and in the general interest of all players. That said, after a few months into Joe Biden’s presidency, it is already evident that he will often be obliged to choose between internal consensus and leading global change in a multilateral way. George W. Bush' unipolar dream is gone, but the steps taken towards a revived US global hegemony risk taking the form of an uncertain compromise between national US interest and a defensive/exclusive concept of internationalism - far from the 1944-45 grand multilateral commitment, from Roosevelt and Kennedy, and even from the Obama approach.

b) A status quo multipolarity? The emergence of China as an unprecedented historical challenge

The second evidence is the dramatic global economic power shift within the process of consolidation of a multipolar world. Since 2007 the rest of the world has overtaken the West with respect to the share of global GDP. China is already the world’s largest global economy in purchasing power parity terms, and it will also be so in nominal terms within a decade. China is the number one import and export power: the largest trading partner for 100 countries, as well as for the EU. Having an authoritarian regime (with a poor human rights record and an alternative understanding of fundamental principles) while being the world’s dominant economy - a highly internationalized, interdependent and technologically advanced country – is unprecedented in history, and it demands innovative thought.

Furthermore, while China is authoritarian, it is a well-functioning one: never in history has such a growth in benefits and welfare been provided to so many people in such a short time. In the USSR, for instance, maintaining its superpower military status came at the cost of people’s welfare. And finally, China, unlike the USSR, is much more integrated in the multilateral system – something that provides multiple opportunities for cooperation over common goods.

c) The strong trend towards a bifurcation

The multipolar global order is increasingly bifurcating between the United States and China: trade tariffs are being introduced, technological digital competition is rife, there are increasing splits in supply chains, mutual threats have been upgraded and political rhetoric is heightened. A second Cold War is not an abstract scenario, but a matter of everyday decisions. In fact, it is openly considered as inevitable by relevant scholars on both sides. In the aftermath of the Anchorage US-China hard confrontation in March 2021 and the following series of reciprocal sanctions, a two-part question arises:

  • Is a serious reduction of global production chains and complex interdependence possible, or is it too late to contain China’s economy in an effective way? See, for example, Ericsson’s support of Huawei’s competitive presence in the West, in the hope that China will support Erikson’s business in China.
  • How can we cope with the risk of an endless multiplying of ineffective reciprocal sanctions, good only for bolstering Xi’s regime?

The EU is interested in averting two risks: either passively adjusting to a hard global bifurcation, or sticking to the status quo, which may end up in dramatically weakening the EU and multilateral organizations, such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the UN, but also the G20, as well as their various binding agendas.  Antonio Guterres' UN reform agenda would be at risk; the revision of WHO governance would be frozen; and the commitment of the new WTO Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala for subsidies reform, investment facilitation, domestic services regulation and Appellate body revival would be harmed. 

How, then, should we deal with China - the country that benefitted most from globalization and multipolarity?  Trump tried to combine his defensive and inward-looking program priority - “America first” – with a tough outward stance: trade wars and political confrontation, with the aim of bringing about an internal collapse of the People’s Republic of China regime. It became quickly evident not only that his tactics would fail, but that economic containment is not a feasible option. Two alternative avenues are possible: either we strive for a realist plural multilateralism that is a mirror of a consolidated multipolarity, making room for China and other non-Western actors, their economies and also their different background cultures; or we search for innovative combinations of realism and transformation.

Of course, the EU must put human rights and the promotion of democracy at the top of its agenda: EU sanctions are justified on the basis of a neutral investigation of human rights violation, and if there are retaliations against European Parliament members, researchers and research centres, China’s actions must be firmly rejected. However, are sanctions – if they are dished out as mainly a means of external pressure - the best way to defend human rights and promote democracy? Is the revival of an anti-reformist and fundamentalist political culture (“if we don’t obtain all we ask for, then we obtain nothing”) a good way for European global influence, or is it the route to dangerous self-isolation?

d) A EU alternative: combining realism with dialogue and transformation towards a new multilateralism

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has mentioned the “Helsinki process” (also known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE)) several times in relation to authoritarian regimes. When the CSCE was established in 1976 as the outcome of the famous Helsinki conference of 1975, the idea of its promoters - from Helmut Schmidt to Olof Palme, and many others - was to profoundly change the authoritarian Eastern European regimes through dialogue and functional cooperation in three areas: security, economy, and culture and human rights. Brandt's Ost-Politik inspired this innovating approach, in spite of the “Gulag Archipelago”.

Combining a defence of our values with increasingly sophisticated negotiations of our interests - by using our market power, e.g. by including a level playing field and the chapter on “sustainable development” in the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI)) - is the EU way, and it is consistent with the aim of open strategic autonomy. This approach is realistic and ambitious at the same time. It is realistic because it is a simple fact that, through the recent Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, all the Asia-Pacific states, including the region’s most important democratic entities (Japan, Korea, Australia, New Zealand) have recently signed an agreement - the “Phase One deal” (January 2020) - with China, and so too has the United States. But it is also ambitious because the EU seems to be aware that if realism is not combined with strong demands for China to respect human rights, the upgrading of treaty contents and the revival of the WTO, the objective risk is a de facto shift to a conservative and status quo multipolarity, framed by a weak and fragile multilateralism. At the same time, the EU’s future as a multilateral entity is directly linked to reform of the multilateral network, and the future of multilateralism is, to a large extent, dependent on the EU as a key driver of multiple coalition building.

Contrary to some comments, strategic autonomy is the opposite of “going it alone”. With good reason, the Franco-German Declaration of 20 November 2020 asserted the European alternative to Cold War - that is, the perspective of a new “Alliance for multilateralism” -, whereas the Cold War scenario would divide the current and potential multilateral coalitions for common goods and weaken multilateral regimes and organisations. The main role of the EU is that of bridge-building, and of forming coalitions at the global, regional and interregional levels, thereby leading the process of multi-lateralizing multipolarity and every bilateral agreement. Since “the status quo is not an option”, defending multilateralism is only possible if one is reforming it. That is why the EU is politically obliged to promote various functional coalitions.

With reason has Josep Borrell argued that the EU must use the language of power with authoritarian regimes. I would go further: we must use distinctive languages of power: market power, trade power and the euro are the most effective levers of international influence available to the EU.   

Conclusion: a Spinellian moment”?

In 2021, we celebrated the 80th anniversary of the “Ventotene Manifesto”. This was the founding statement of the European construction, drafted by Altiero Spinelli and his colleagues during their fascist detention.  Would it not be a largely consensual idea to propose to make of 2021-22 a “Spinellian moment” for the EU? Dedicating the Brussels Parliament building to Spinelli was one way of recognizing the main driver of the EU democratization process. However, in a period where the EU needs both more democracy and an enhancement of its role in the world, the bloc’s citizens would feel more enthusiasm for a Spinellian moment than for a “Hamiltonian moment” (to quote Wolfgang Schäuble writing in “The Economist”). Hamilton’s fight was aiming at building the United States; the EU is not a second United States in the making. Spinelli represents the federalist idea and movement, but also a much larger array of forces and hopes for European unity, rooted in every Member State and political culture - an internationally ambitious European project very timely in the current world. Underlining this solid inspiration would help to avoid two wrong turns: on the one hand, a merely instrumental approach to Europe’s unity, whose demise was confirmed by Brexit; and, on the other, an emphasis on the building of a European sovereign state or a Eurocentric dream of a “European civilisation”. Taking a Spinellian inspiration for open strategic autonomy may help upgrade the global EU’s distinctive project of European modernity and be a driver of new multilateral cooperation. This project is more actual than ever. Through such a symbolic reference, the Conference of 2021 could make the EU’s “Open strategic autonomy” more credible and more able to represent the will of millions of citizens for peace, and an inspiring political and socioeconomic model in an uncertain world. 

[i]             M. Telò & D. Viviers, Europe, China, USA. Alternative Visions of a changing world, Bruxelles, Académie Royale, 2021

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